Respond to this Article July/August 2005

House Divided

In Washington, even apartment-hunting is partisan.

By Amy Sullivan

Americans around the country are familiar with the housing crunch: Prices keep rising, occupancy rates are at near-record highs, and--particularly in major cities--competition for those rare vacancies can be fierce. In pursuit of a roof over her head, the typical house hunter may find herself setting aside visions of the perfect urban loft and considering a less-than-convenient location, no parking, an EZ-Bake-sized oven, and an inescapable dog smell. In Washington, D.C., the question becomes one degree more complicated. "Can I live without air conditioning?" is a crucial consideration, yes. But not nearly as difficult as, "Can I live with (or rent from) a Republican?"

Desperate times, however, call for desperate measures. In early June, the late hours that this job requires finally got to me, and I decided the time had come to ditch my cheap but far-off apartment for one closer to the office. Which is how, several days later, I found myself standing in the kitchen of a prospective landlord, staring at an assortment of red-white-and-blue elephant magnets on his refrigerator, and frantically considering possible answers to the question he had just asked me. "So, what kind of magazine is The Washington Monthly?" It sounded harmless enough. But just the fact that he asked meant that I'd already slipped up, sending my initial email inquiry from a work account instead of the more anonymous Hotmail address. Drat.

"Um, it's political," I replied, trying to focus on counting kitchen cabinets and figuring out where my slow cooker would go. (You can take the girl out of the Midwest, after all, but she's still going to need to make goulash from time to time.) Maybe he would lose interest, and I could switch conversation topics. "That's interesting," he said instead. "Liberal or conservative?"

I quickly reviewed my options. It was too late to try to pass the magazine off as the glossy and apolitical Washingtonian, even though most people confuse the two anyway. Should I lie? It didn't seem like the best way to start with the guy who would determine whether or not the hot water heater would get fixed in the middle of winter. For a few brief moments, I wondered if I'd made a mistake--rendered temporarily stupid, I tried to remember whether elephants were the good guys or the bad guys. I like elephants. Yes, but that's why it's counterintuitive. You're not an elephant, you're an ass. Yes, I was. I really needed to move, the place wasn't bad--anchors-away decorating scheme in the bathroom aside--and here I was picking an unnecessary partisan fight. In the end, I opted for the standard weaselly response that I give most conservatives. "We're kind of, you know, in the middle…taking on both sides, that sort of thing." It sounded just as lame as it always does. Feet were shifted, throats were cleared, and we both quickly made excuses to bring the apartment showing to an end.

This all must sound faintly insane to anyone who doesn't live in the Washington area, and perhaps even to some who do. If you need a place to live, and someone is looking for a tenant, what on earth does partisan affiliation have to do with it? But that's just the point. Partisan identity has everything to do with living in Washington. It affects what bars you frequent, who you date, and whether that car with the "W" bumper sticker lets you merge into its lane.

Sometimes, on those occasions when times are really tight--say, when your only other option is to slink back home and live with your mom, dad, and the cat--partisan differences can be overcome. One year, I saved money for graduate school by sharing a house with three conservative evangelical women; we became good friends and tensions in the house were low as long as I ignored the photo on the coffee table that showed them protesting outside the Supreme Court during the 2000 recount with signs that read, "Gore, You Run Like a Girl!" And for the past few years, I have rented an apartment from two lovely friends who couldn't be farther from me on the political spectrum. We avoided each other for several months following last fall's election, and it's understood that they think my political comrades are godless heathens who would run the country into a sinful pit of despair given the chance, but aside from that, we get along swimmingly.

Still, you can never be too careful. In this city, as in few other places, identifying as a Democrat or Republican doesn't just indicate the way you vote at the polls. It's who you are, it's what motivates your career choices, it's why you work long hours for low pay and--if your side is out of power--often little political reward. At the end of the day, you can only plaster on a smile for so many "Oh, ho, ho... we all know Republicans/Democrats are a bunch of corrupt liars" cracks, whether they come from your neighbor or housemate or landlord.

So, when I found what appeared to be the perfect apartment late last month, I was guarded. Judging from the online photos, the place looked adorable. When I emailed (from my Hotmail account) to set up a time to see the apartment, the landlord wrote that he and his partner lived on the second floor of the house. A gay couple! Unless they were Log Cabin, that could only be a good sign. The visit went well, and Ed and I ended up chatting away in the kitchen until he asked me whether the apartment was convenient to my office. "Absolutely," I replied. "I work near the White House." Ed became quiet, and we were on our way the door with perfunctory goodbyes when he looked down at my rental application.

"Oh, you're a journalist!" he said. "For The Washington Monthly! When you said you worked near the White House, I thought... well, I thought something else." Smiles all around. "Oh, no," I assured him. "We're not involved with all that." Relieved, we shook hands heartily.

I'm moving in next month. And I'll be bringing my Bobby Kennedy poster with me. Because while we in the nation's capital would like to see a little more bipartisanship in the House, we don't necessarily need to start at home.

Amy Sullivan is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


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